May I Be Frank?

A while back I was privileged to attend the West Alternate School graduation ceremony.  For the past 22 years, the teacher there has been Mr. Frank Ieule.

I could go on and on and tell you about what a special community Frank has created but instead, I’ll read excerpts from last year’s valedictorian speech written by a grade 10 student (for issues of privacy, we’ll call her Susan):

When I was first asked to write this speech, I was terrified.  I’ve never been one to get in front of people.  I decided to do it because I find it important to overcome my fear.

This school has helped so many people overcome and enhance multiple issues, some with social skills, others with academics and, I would imagine, some with more personal issues.

West has given me a chance to get through school.  I didn’t think I would make it through grade 8 but here I am graduating from grade 10 on my way to 11.  When I come to school in the mornings even when I don’t want to I have things to look forward to. I get to see friends, I get to relax and yes I get to write.  I love to write it’s a passion and being here gives me a chance to express myself and a chance for people to experience what I write.  One of my favourite things is when Frank walks into class and smiles with a good morning. No matter what mood he is in he can always make mine better.  He can see when I’m not feeling well and he always has a shoulder to cry on or a hug to feel safe in.  I love the fact that he shares his personal life with us which allows us to share our personal lives with him.

Frank has shown me that there are amazing fathers and male figures in this world which I never believed could be possible.

Frank makes this school which makes us . . . it’s the people here, the atmosphere when you walk in the front door.  I am sad yet grateful that I got to be here.  I’m sad because I have to leave this wonderful place and all the people.  Yet I am grateful at the same moment because I made it.  I have succeeded in continuing on.

Great schools are not a matter of circumstance.  They are a matter of will.  Many, will tell you differently but make no mistake, building a culture of success is not about money.  A culture of success is predicated on will, determination, and persistence.

Ultimately, everything starts and ends with a teacher’s personal vision for his or her classroom:

– a commitment to making the changes to ensure greater rigor;

– a willingness to take risks;

– the desire to offer support and work collaboratively;

– the ability to be critically reflective and abandon long-standing practices that are not successful.

All of this calls for optimism which will breed passion.  Passion, in turn will create energy.  The West school community, under Frank’s guidance, is led with hope and optimism and as a result has a built-in momentum that you will be hard pressed to find elsewhere.

Optimism breeds passion.  Passion creates energy.

Schools are engaging places, filled with positive energy because educators like Frank provide students with enriching experiences, positive reinforcement and enable them to discover their own admirable purposes.  They give hope and love to those so desperately in need of both and in so doing they enrich their lives. They give students the possibility of a ‘new beginning’ and help them find wonder and belief, in themselves and the world around them.

I share this story because, unfortunately, a lot of what I’ve been hearing these days about education and our ‘system’ has been disquieting.  Forget about our international rankings, forget about discussions around “personalized learning” (by the way, it’s here already, we’ve just been calling it differentiated instruction), forget about what it is we’re not doing and how we are apparently stifling creativity within our schools.  How about, instead, we start our discussion about education by focusing on Susan and her experience with Frank and the West Program? How about we start talking from a position of strength, dare I say an appreciative inquiry, garnered from the reality of what is and what continues to be a quality educational experience here in Vancouver.

Isn’t it great that Susan went to a Vancouver school which, like all of our schools, appreciated and nurtured her talents – a school that helped her to succeed but didn’t measure this success strictly via grades? A school that measured success by the type of altruistic pursuits she engaged in, by her participation in the arts and tech ed., by her involvement in extracurricular events; a school that measured success in terms of her own development of ‘self concept.’

When we ‘backward map’ and determine that success will be defined this way, we can continue to create learning communities that will produce the competencies that Susan demonstrates through her speech: academic motivation, ethical behaviour and the development of social and emotional literacy.

Eleven years into the millennium, I thank Frank for showing me that good learning isn’t defined by a century and that what we are doing is making a difference, helping students like Susan “succeed in continuing on.”

  1. Thanks for sharing such a meaningful story Gino! Too often, we don’t have the opportunity to hear from our students as they graduate and move on to the next chapter of their lives. Stories such as this are very inspiring and are a reminder to me of the impact that we can have on the lives of young people. The words will, determination and persistence truly resonate with me. I’m a strong believer that the greater the effort that one invests into students, the greater the satisfaction one will derive from them.


    • Thanks for the comments, Aaron.

      I couldn’t agree with you more about the “greater satisfaction.” The worst thing about our jobs is that we rarely get to hear about the impact we make on the students around us from the students themselves. When I was a counsellor, I used to schedule classes with my kids in early June and ask them, over the hour, to write notes/letters to staff that had made positive impacts on them during the year. I remember when I was at Gladstone, I remember like it was yesterday, a female custodian with tears in her eyes coming up to me and clutching a piece of paper. The paper was a note from one of my students that read (and I’m going from memory here), “Thank you for being so nice to me. I don’t think you remember but one day I was in the girls’ washroom, not feeling good about myself. You were cleaning the sink and you turned and smiled at me saying that I looked very pretty today. You really made my day.”

      I still think about this today and wonder at how the simplest of gestures impact our students in the grandest of ways. I also reflect on how it impacts me and how lucky I am to be an educator. As I told @Akevy613 in my response to his recent post, “What Really Matters,” it’s what I tell my students when they ask me why I became a Principal: “because it allows me to have interactions that in their continued significance make me a better human being.”

  2. Hi Gino
    Speaking of Frank and feedback. I know a grade 12 student who is graduating this month in spite of a lifetime of financial hardship and personal challenges. He said “I wouldn’t have ever made it this far except for two teachers I had. One was Frank (West) and the other was Jim (Spectrum).” I asked him if he could identify anything they had in common and he said “Yes, strange now that I think of it. They both had the same book sitting on their desks. It was called ‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”. They both really followed that and so I always felt that they cared about me”.

    • Julie, teaching is like parenting and faith.

      1. As parents we unfortunately ‘have to leave’ before we see how the full story plays out for our children so too in education where we claim ‘lifelong learning’ for kids but never get to hear from them or the impact we have made around this pursuit.
      2. Faith is a belief that doing good in the ‘known’ will lead to comfortability with and acceptance of the ‘unknown’. Much like education, we deal with the ‘now’ in caring, empathic ways, and we hope that the impact will have significance for our students well beyond the immediacy of the situation.

      What Frank, Jim, Doug, you and all the others at our Alternates do is ‘reshuffle’ the deck on a daily basis so that ‘the hand’ these kids have is at least playable during the instructional day. The hope is that they continue to play with these cards as they enter the games outside of your four walls.

      I do miss you, Frank and everyone else and feel a ‘visit’ coming on very soon!

  3. Well said, Gino. In my 34 years in the district there has always been an outstanding amount of work done – mostly silently, sometimes unacknowledged by the majority – by the staff members of our alternative programs. This amazing system of support for some of our most vulnerable learners was until a few years ago not duplicated by any other district.

    I am always delighted with the parent meetings of today when a parent says “I went to _____ Alternate and I graduated! It was the best program for me when I was struggling.” A real tribute to the people and organizational structures that make these programs available and viable.

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